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The Biden doctrine: Allies matter

Foreign policy will look drastically different if Joe Biden defeats President Trump in November, advisers tell Axios — starting with a Day One announcement that the U.S. is re-entering the Paris Climate Agreement and new global coordination of the coronavirus response.

The big picture: If Trump's presidency started the "America First" era of withdrawal from global alliances, Biden's team says his presidency would be the opposite: a re-engagement with the world and an effort to rebuild those alliances — fast.


  • Biden will be pressed in the coming months for more details about how his proposals have changed since his time as Barack Obama's vice president, but his choice of advisers and his remarks thus far serve as guideposts about his thinking.

Driving the news: Biden advisers who watched the 2008-09 financial crisis consume Obama’s early days say that, similarly, the domestic challenges posed by the coronavirus will demand much of the next administration’s attention while the global impacts may compete with other priorities.

  • “Job one will be to get COVID under control,” said Tony Blinken, Biden’s longtime foreign policy adviser.
  • Colin Kahl, a former Biden aide who is familiar with his views, said if Biden is elected, “Day One is making sure that our approach to COVID and the associated economic crisis is coordinated internationally" — as well as re-entering the Paris accord to combat global warming.
  • The pandemic doesn’t recognize borders, and beyond the obvious health implications, team Biden is concerned about a potential global food crisis, security vulnerabilities, worldwide depression and an emerging market debt crunch.

But the coronavirus is just the beginning. Biden's advisers look at the world they could inherit and feel a sense of dread and urgency in every time zone: Climate change, Iran’s breakout time for a nuclear weapon, North Korea’s missile advancement, a revanchist Russia and an assertive China.

  • They also worry about stress fractures in the post-WWII international architecture, exacerbated by Trump's "America First" approach.
  • “At the top of the agenda at the outset will be signaling to our closes democratic allies that we’re back, that alliances and partnerships matter,” Kahl said.
  • They take some comfort in Biden's own history of personal diplomacy and a commitment to allies. "There's a lot of low hanging fruit, like shoring up alliances,’’ said Derek Chollet, a state and defense department officials in the Obama administration. “Joe Biden is really good at relationships and alliances."

Don't forget: In July 2008, Obama did a world tour promising to end the Bush administration's foreign policy approach and embrace multilateralism.

  • The pandemic has ruled out globetrotting for Biden this summer, but his foreign policy approach looks similar, starting with a pledge to unwind Trumpism on the international stage.

Our thought bubble: The core Biden foreign policy team served in the Obama administration.

  • Blinken, who during Biden’s earlier days in the U.S. Senate was his staff director on the Committee on Foreign Relations, served as Biden's national security adviser in the White House and later as deputy secretary of state under John Kerry.
  • Jake Sullivan, who joined the Obama administration in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, later served as Biden’s national security adviser and was instrumental in the Iran deal.
  • Susan Rice, who served as Obama’s third national security adviser and first UN ambassador, has been advising the campaign and is among the women being considered for Biden's running mate.
  • Samantha Power, Obama’s second UN ambassador, is very involved in the Biden campaign and is talked about as a potential secretary of state.
  • The Donilon brothers, long in Biden’s personal and professional orbit, served in Obama’s White House — Mike in the VP’s office, and Tom as Obama’s second national security adviser.
  • Julie Smith, a Europe specialist who started in the Pentagon and then served as Biden's deputy national security adviser, could find herself as ambassador to NATO or the UN.

Between the lines: Biden and Obama had several serious policy differences. In some cases, Biden played devil's advocate to help Obama arrive at a decision, but there were some genuine divergences.

  • Biden was for providing the Ukrainians Javelin anti-tank missiles; Obama was opposed. Biden was opposed to erecting a no-fly zone in Libya; Obama imposed one. Biden was against a troop surge in Afghanistan. Obama first added 17,000 and then 30,000. Biden was opposed to calling for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to leave office. Obama hastened his exit.

Though Biden's policies would be quite different from Trump's, his team may embrace a tactic that Trump also favors when trying to achieve major strategic goals: Overwhelm the circuits and push on multiple fronts at once.

  • “I don't think this can really be sequenced,” Blinken said. "I don't think we'll have the luxury of choice.”
  • At the same time, Ned Price, a former CIA and Obama NSC officialsays there's an understanding that "most of the important things can't be done with a flip of the switch."
  • "China is not a 100 day project; China is a presidency project," said Chollet, now at the German Marshall Fund.

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